Through the Looking Glass: Lessons Learned from the Dartmouth Community

by Kathryn Sachs | 6/9/18 2:20am

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Kathryn Sachs ’18 learned to push herself outside of her comfort zone at Dartmouth.

by Courtesy of Kathryn Sachs / The Dartmouth

When I was looking at colleges, I asked current students a lot of questions. Their responses were plentiful, varied and usually helpful. But when I asked Dartmouth students what stood out about their school and why they seemed to love it so much, I got one answer over and over and over again: they loved Dartmouth because of the people.

This answer was generic, but when they said it, their faces softened, or their eyes lit up, or they launched into a story. Students from other schools usually searched around for answers. “Oh, you know, the classes. The professors. There’s really good food here.” This was different, and I was sold.

Once I got here, everyone was friendly — cloyingly so, sometimes, a result of the heady combination of anxiety and eagerness to make new friends that characterizes freshman fall. I got to know so many people so quickly, and yet I was left with the feeling that I didn’t know them at all. I had the feeling we were all alone together. That’s one of those uncomfortable things about moving from high school to college — you come from a place where, for better or for worse, most people know something about what makes you who you are. Then you come to this unknown place that is a fresh start, maybe, but also a place where you can know a lot of people but be totally anonymous. As I think most freshmen do, I struggled at first to find my “place.” I made some great friends, but I didn’t have a community with whom I felt comfortable sharing anything about myself beyond the basics.

Over time, though, that changed. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I said yes to everything, I said what I really thought and felt and I found little pockets of community. Cordiality turned to vulnerability and inclusiveness, and I started to learn why new friends held certain values, what kept them up at night and who and what was important to them. There wasn’t a particular moment where I truly started to feel at home here, but I remember how grateful I felt the first time someone really opened up to me about their life with the intention of including me in their future. This started happening with more people in new places, usually when I threw myself into something new or reached out to someone out of the blue. In a Greek house filled with diverse, inspiring women; in an impressive professor’s office hours; or as a member of a First Year Trips specialty croo I had no business being on, unexpected people in unexpected places have make Dartmouth home to me.

The College on the Hill isn’t always the easiest place to be. I have plenty of issues with certain mentalities that pervade the student body here, with the lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity, the heavily Greek male-dominated social scene and the relative myopia with which many over-privileged students seem to view the world. I get frustrated with top-down social engineering projects from the administration, or the way that the school somehow funnels so many bright, inquiring minds largely into finance and consulting without giving them the tools to explore other options. It feels like some students here have become so accustomed to success that they are cripplingly afraid to fail, so they take the safe path even if it may not be the right one for them. I have had to witness so many people struggle here through no fault of their own, knowing that some of the systems in place to help them were doing the opposite. There have been days when I hated being here, and I know many people who can’t wait to leave.

It may be the nostalgia kicking in, but at the end of the day, my frustrations and stresses have given way for a deep appreciation of what so many of my peers have been able to offer during their time here. They have put aside the trivialities of daily life to reach out to others, to be vulnerable in ways that one might not expect. They have shared their culture, their struggles, their triumphs and their fears with me. On my worst days, people here opened their arms for me. That is a gift I can never repay, but will try to pay forward for the rest of my life.

I’m not going to look back at college and remember what grades I got or what most of my readings argued. I won’t remember specific nights out, or how I felt about the food or the housing system or whatever other administrative plan was buzzy that day. What I will remember — and what will permanently change the way I interact with the world — is how much other Dartmouth students have inspired me and pushed me to grow, to question my assumptions and to take risks. In a world that seems so divided and where every day brings more controversy and debate, leaning on others and hearing their stories has made me more compassionate, more open to new ideas and more optimistic about the power of humanity to drive out hate. Whether over a single meal or a four-year friendship, finding these connections and learning from others’ unique talents and flaws and passions makes this place special.

As graduation approaches, I have to believe that the best aspects of the “Dartmouth community” — whatever that may mean to each one of us — will transcend this physical place. We may not all be within the same square mile of each other in two, 10 or 50 years. But we can take the lessons we’ve learned here both in and out of the classroom and continue to build connections, to support and challenge one another and to know that our personal experiences are valuable but limited, and that we have so much to learn from each other. I am so grateful for the time, conversation, knowledge, creativity, vulnerability and companionship others have shared with me at this school. So when people ask me what my favorite thing about Dartmouth was, I will have my answer ready.